January 30, 2021 ☼ Year Recap
2020 in media is already starting to fade - the items listed here explored by me before the clock struck 12 on New Years Eve, already seem positively so last year. And yet if there was an overarching theme of 2020, it’s that this notion of since-dismissed topics, waved away as they fade from public consciousness or that those in charge of trumpeting their values moved on due to exhaustion, should still, and will still, continue to exist and surround us in the landscape we walk into 2021 in.
Animal Crossing, in a year of some other notable game releases and trends, did something games hadn’t done in a while - its release marked a true cultural event. Not some pseudo-event like a manicured performance in a self-proclaimed metaverse, but instead a moment where a relatively niche game took the whole world by storm due to lucky timing (and genuine charm) in a year that couldn’t have been better postured to receive it.
Releasing slightly after the start of quarantine, Animal Crossing hit at a time where everyone was stuck inside but everyone still wanted to hang out. People looked for outlets, and exhausted from zoom calls and other work-adjacent tech, and not into games enough to see something like Fortnite as viable, the world was wooed by Animal Crossing’s charms as a delightful way to exist in a world that had fewer problems than ours.
After the George Floyd protests though, the game took up and air of escapism that border on negligent. I’m not one to decry the potential moral pitfalls of playing games, but damn if playing Animal Crossing while national protests for racial justice were erupting across the nation (and literally outside my window) didn’t give me pause. I think Animal Crossing does well to avoid the trap of toxic positivity, but its full rejection of any tether to “the real world” made playing it after George Floyd was killed feel a bit too much of a distraction. I’m happy to soak in its charms for 99% of the rest of the time, but after binging it hard for a month I stepped away, only to return a few weeks ago.
On the opposite end of Animal Crossing, stands Hades. It’s a PG-13 version of whatever the exact opposite of Animal Crossing may be, and in a way stands at the other end of the year, balancing a seesaw that pivots around July, the tipping point of America as it sinks into disease due to mismanagement by our government.
Also a bit naive, but through a teen’s eyes as they discover the world, Hades was a panacea (or an outlet) to the years rage. A battle out of the underworld proved salient, destroying everything in your path with increasing power until you either left hell or died trying. I don’t want to try to hand wave that it was in anyway a valid substitute for direct action against the world’s woes, but damn if just smashing some baddies didn’t feel good when everything else in 2020 feels defined by restraints. I also point this out to say that Hades is so not what I typically look for in a videogame. Games like Hades have come out for years and will continue to come out - but for whatever reason, maybe the above, it really stuck with me. It’s a “perfect” game - well-considered and endlessly confident in itself and possibly the pinnacle of what supergiant has been trying to do ever since bastion.
Before I picked Animal Crossing back up, I played Paper Mario: The Origami King. If you listen to my podcast, Bad End, you know this was my Certified Favorite Game of the Year.
Why though is harder to sketch. For starters, the GameCube entry, Thousand Year Door, remains in my mind as one of the best games of all time, with heights not even approached by other Nintendo titles, until possibly now. Paper Mario, as a franchise, is a bit like Animal Crossing before New Horizons - a much loved series with no major mass-market breakthrough.
But what IS clear about Origami King is that Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey have started something inside Nintendo. The hands of those two games are all over Origami King, and, combined with Paper Mario’s DNA, have combined to make something formidable - a game genuinely full of delight and charm, that is endlessly surprising in exciting ways.
Unlike Animal Crossing or really any other Nintendo game, Paper Mario, and Origami King especially, circle an emotional depth and range that bigger AAA games can only dream of. Yes, it’s delivered in a way palatable for kids, but Origami King touches on themes of loss, love, death, rebirth, envy, anger, and everything in between. It does all this at the same time it provides a game that is a genuine joy to play, shirking the “pain parade” that has come to define “emotional” AAA titles like Red Dead Redemption or The Last of Us, where the only emotion worth exploring is sadness and as such ensures the gameplay itself is tedious, frustrating, pedantic, and self-flagellating. Paper Mario is none of this, and instead invites you to explore a world of whimsy and wonder and embark on a genuine adventure through it.
Kentucky Route Zero is one of the greatest games ever made. It’s now nearly decade long lifecycle to put out Acts 1-5 makes its development almost old enough to say its first curse word. Released in single act increments, KRZ has had the same weird arc of Harry Potter in my life, where each successive entry was easily able to see myself in because I was the age of the characters in the story. Granted I’m not as old as Conway and Co., but the sort of ideological journey of the series has matched me mentally pretty well.
It’s for this reason I also haven’t yet played Act 5. I know it will be fantastic, I know it will likely be life changing, but after such a hell year I’m not sure I want that amount of revelation yet. I’ll be surely playing it in 2021, but for now I mention it to mostly say hey this came out and I’m preemptively stating how much I’ll enjoy it.
On the same spectrum of KRZ but something I did actually play this year was Promesa. I wrote a lot about it here if you want to read my full thoughts, but the long and short of it is that Promesa is one of the most innovative games I’ve played in a long time and deftly leverages the affordances of the medium of interaction to tell its story. It does that and a lot more, but like I said, read more here.
Speaking of innovative. Who would have thought that a fake baseball league would take off in 2020? Everyone? No one? Regardless, it happened.
With about as much chrome as a Yahoo Finance stock ticker, Blaseball charmed thousands of people by (some would say) providing a surrogate for sports fans. Turns out you don’t need “real” games to have stats! Most sports fanatics I know don’t watch most of the games anyways.
Blaseball took it another step and made the game weird and mysterious. A nondescript white font against an all black background allowed you to sort of project meaning into spare lines of text that only hinted at backgrounds. What exactly is a shoethief? Blaseball’s biggest fans took this and ran with it. Ran… REALLY FAR with this. “Playing Blaseball” quickly became a full time job - not because the game itself was more complicated, but because the engine of fandom had been activated and target directly at the beating heart of this HTML page.
I quickly fell off Blaseball after this. There were no longer casual Blaseball admirers - you were either on the bus or off the bus, and I had other things to do. Sounds like sports I guess??
The listing has since been removed, but for about a week the best videogame you could play in 2020 was the virtual house tour of this seemingly normal house. The listing has since been taken down (maybe the house sold?) but for a better deep dive into the house check out the article here.
Like Blaseball, one really interesting thing about the virality of this house tour was the social circumstances of its discussion online, namely in the way that everyone talked about it like it was a game. You were sort of playing a real life hide-and-seek, or something like an interactive 3D Where’s Waldo.
And though the house game lacked all the bells and whistles of traditional games (no progression systems, no emotional performances, etc.) it occupied the same amount of my consciousness for approximately the same amount of time typically allotted to whatever AAA nonsense came out that week. Which is to say, though nothing like a “proper” game, it’s hard to not feel like this tour was in fact a true “game of the year”, and, in combination with Blaseball, points to the shifting circumstances of the consumption of games and that that mode itself is maybe more telling than whatever external indicators describe something’s ostensible intrinsic “gameness”.
Whereas many many spheres of games have given up on the pursuit of novel and interesting mechanics, boardgames are instead plowing ahead, mining the depths of mechanical complexity and systems-oriented design and as such continue to provide me with a lot of what I want from a game. Boardgames’ cousins tabletop roleplaying games are also stomping on videogames when it comes to innovative worldbuilding and story, which makes one wonder if videogames are at a bit on an ideological impasse right now (they probably are!).
Senet, while not the most uh… critical publication about boardgames, has come to occupy a really great niche in the space of talking about boardgames generally. It’s not disgustingly effusive about every game the comes out, nor is it a place to really seek well-thought criticism, but instead stands to represent a measured celebration of the happenings and artists at work in the space. With only three issues out so far the total body of work is easily digestible in an afternoon, but I look forward to each issue just to flip through its well designed pages and learn just a little bit more about one of my favorite hobbies.
Speaking of boardgames! With quarantine keeping everyone away, playing boardgames in general has been difficult as mustering a full party of four people is nigh impossible. So my wife and I have mainly been turning to stuff that is lightly directly competitive, or playing games that are good for co-op. One such game we’ve really come to enjoy is the baby brother of table-dominating Gloomhaven, Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion.
Jaws was made with the expressed purpose of providing big box retailers with a version of Gloomhaven that would be more palatable to a more general audience than their flagship product, but, after playing it it’s hard to really understand what else the main Gloomhaven would add that didn’t just feel like more.
Which is to say yes, I haven’t played the normal Gloomhaven yet, but damned if Jaws doesn’t provide me with basically what I assume I would want from the big box. It clearly trims the main game down with such a precise scalpel that the soul of Gloomhaven is maintained in its reduction. And, for whatever it’s worth, Jaws now maintains a place in the top 10 games on BoardGameGeek (Gloomhaven proper is #1).
What’s great about it is that it provides you with the Gloomhaven experience in a box and package that gets to the table. It takes less than ten minutes to setup, and you can be playing in minutes. Even amongst normal TTRPGs, it’s pretty staggering to know that in a matter of minutes you embark on a co-op fantasy dungeon crawl that is tactically satisfying and strategically interesting for all players, that also allows people to maintain their emotional connection to their character as they progress through the levels and ranks of the game.
On maybe the opposite end of the Jaws spectrum is another game I became enamored with in 2020, War of the Ring. The simple pitch for WotR is that it’s the best realization, in game form, of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. What that shakes out to in practice is a game that is doubly asymmetric, with the forces of evil (The “Shadow”) essentially trying to besige all of Middle Earth against the forces of good (The “Free Peoples”). The Shadow is massively overpowered in this regard, with a never-ending new supply of forces that can easily sweep the map. The Free Peoples essentially stand no chance of winning.
All while this is going on, which in its own right is a fabulous wargame-ish thing, the Free Peoples player is slowly moving Frodo to Mt. Doom to destroy the One Ring. Both players are aware of this happening, both have to account for it, and set against the backdrop of continent-spanning war, manages to evoke so many of the feelings of the LotR series that no game really feels like it comes close. Sure other games manage to evoke individual battles of the stories better (I’m looking at you, The Two Towers game), but nothing comes even half as close at displaying the tapestry of the whole.
It’s in this way that playing the game even feels like reading the books. The map is absolutely huge, so when you start as the Free Peoples player in Rivendell and are staring down the actual treacherous path to Mordor, it’s easy to sympathize with everyone in the Council who says such a journey can’t be done.
There’s much more to say about War of the Ring, and I recommend watching this video for a better overview than I’m giving it here, but damn. I really do love this game and am so glad I finally got to play it this year and have played it a few times since then. And one last thing - it’s easy to see what I said above and assume the Shadow player wins every time. In fact this is far from the case. There is an annual WotR tournament that happens every year amongst high-level players of the game, and the win-rate for either side is effectively 50%. For a game so asymmetric (I didn’t even talk about the event cards!), so thematic, and so tactical, for it to also be a viable candidate for high-level play is only icing on the top. I can’t wait to play more.
In early 2020 I wrote about my journey in discovering the OSR, and The Ultraviolet Grasslands is 100% part of a similar spirit of that. One thing that drew me so strongly the OSR was the seeming unbounded and unbridled creatively the positively oozed out of anything I picked up. Surely part of that was novelty, and in retrospect I can see how some things that really stuck with me have proved to be tropes, but on the whole I’m finding more creative spirit and originality in the OSR right now than in anything else. More than games, more than moves, more than “normal” books.
The Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG) by Luka Rejec epitomizes that. There is more creativity dripping from a single paragraph on a single page of Rejec’s magnum opus than I’ve found in… anything in recent memory? It makes any other attempt at “worldbuilding” feel overwrought and burdened with its own ostensible mission. Instead Rejec just looks you dead in the eyes, says “buckle up,” and explodes off into the madness that is UVG. Ideas, places, people, histories aren’t so much as laid out as they are thrown into your eyes in a blinding flash, giving you whiplash as you reckon with the implications of the last sentence you read while you’re trying to process the what you’re currently reading.
One other thing I’ll say about the UVG. I read recently on an OSR blog somewhere (sorry!) about the idea that most random tables can probably be sentences. Most. This is largely because, for most “normal” circumstances, a table is actually limiting the agency of a DM to come up with interesting characteristics of something and is instead funneling them into your (the writer’s) idea of them. Which is to say, just make that be a description! It saves space and saves everyone time.
(I’m thinking too here about something we’ve talked about on Bad End re: Disco Elysium about how un-selected conversation options in Disco Elysium still represent part of the “story” as thoughts - Harry’s capacity to think something in a way already makes that thought itself part of our understanding of Harry)
This Table -> Sentence transform is thus pretty useful! The other implication of this argument, and partly why its suggested in the first place, is to only use tables when what you’re portraying with a table is truly random and unexpected and not a direct outcome of what else has been implied. And the UVG is full of these tables. GOOD tables. Tables of absolute insanity and weirdness, where the implications of a single role could fundamentally alter a playthrough. You’ll find no tables for what types of shoes the cobbler likes to fix, but instead tables will be “where does this one-way interdimensional portal go” with options that don’t simply reinforce what you already know about the UVG but instead expand its possibility space.
All this and I’m only 40 pages in to the 200 page tome.
2020 man woo. I usually talk about more movies and music (I think?) when I write these up but given that the movie industry essentially paused itself this year the former felt pretty dry, and the latter? Well I simply don’t listen to as much new music as I used to and it feels aggressively lame to once again say how much I listened to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea this year.
One genuinely new album I really enjoyed though was Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher. I have really nothing else to say about the album besides that I’ve always loved Bridgers’ songwriting ever since I first heard her singing with Conor Oberst as/in Better Oblivion Community Center. Punisher very much extends that energy to a new album, with Bridgers channeling some of the highest highs from Oberst’s freak-folk opus Cassadaga but filtered through a string of modernism that I think could only come from someone as online as Bridgers. It feels like she sings for everyone that listens to her.
In lieu of movies I watched too much YouTube stuff in 2020. Obviously boardgame reviews, synth reviews, GDC talks, interviews, etc., but one other thing that held my attention and acted as both a lifeline to the reality that existed outside of quarantine and a horrid signifier of how absolutely insane America is was the YouTube show All Gas No Brakes.
The host, Andrew Callahan, goes around America in a camper van and a cheap suit and finds the weirdest people in America and basically just lets them speak. It’s a structure that directly recalls the series that made now-SNL host Kyle Mooney famous, where Kyle (no relation) would go to unexceptional convention centers and pose as a confusing reporter asking people nonsense questions and watching the people’s reactions. It was funny at the time and in retrospect is a bit problematic (the whole schtick was that Kyle sort of spoke in this muttering voice that can easily be seen as a speech impediment, so the idea was that people maybe extended him generosity that he then abused by putting the camera on them as the joke).
The difference between Kyle’s videos and AGNB is that Callahan isn’t really playing a character, nor is he supposed to be the funny one. Instead of trying to get into this “other area” that Mooney tried to get through by knocking people off their guard, Callahan goes to people who are already totally unhinged and really just 1) Acts like he cares and 2) Puts a mic in their face. And these people just let it rip.
So while in Mooney’s videos you feel a bit bad for the person being interviewed, in AGNB you feel a bit sad at the totally insane state of affairs in America, which in its own way is a nihlistic pleasure. Watching a 50 year old man shamelessly scream the phrase “BUTTPUSSY” as long as his aging lungs can allow will be one of the standout moments of 2020 for me. All Gas No Brakes doesn’t so much as “expose an underbelly of America” - this stuff is all out in the open and nobody was paying attention, so Callahan just goes there and lets the people speak.
There’s a moment in a video of his where he’s at the George Floyd protests in Minneapolis that still really stands out to me as this meta level commentary on American media in 2020. Callahan, already having be shown on camera really in the proverbial shit on the ground, is standing on a bridge with someone from a clearly more traditional news outlet. While the guy on the bridge is using a telephoto lens to film the protest commotion far down below his current position, Callahan looks at him and asks “Are you allowed to interview people”? The guy responds “ah yeah, yeah we are”. Callahan looks back at the camera and smiles, and then we cut back to Callahan back on the ground, interviewing people about what’s going on.
Similar, actually, to All Gas No Brakes, HBO’s How to with John Wilson puts a camera in front of normal people’s faces and just lets them talk. But, unlike AGNB, How to is a bit more oblique in its aims. Each episode is a tongue-in-cheek musing on something that is only tangentially related to what’s directly shown on screen.
Honestly as I type this it’s really hard to describe this show, as its structure, described, will sound very different than what the show actually is. In the trailer for the show, John Wilson even says “HBO is having a hard time explaining what my show is…” Maybe watch that and it will make more sense.
What is clear though is that each episode is transcendent. Small moments of life are magnified and remixed with other seemingly innocuous things Wilson’s camera captured, and stitched together form something much greater than the sum of its parts.
If you’re asking yourself why the hell there needs to be a Watchmen series, you’re in the same boat everyone else was in when this was announced.
However, the triumph of Watchmen is that it:
Carves out its own meaningful space in the canon of Watchmen
Expands and projects the larger themes of “Watchmen” onto an aggressively modern context, and in doing so basically serves a corrective to people who took away the wrong “lessons” from the original comic.
(And this one is really just the cherry on top) Tells a twisting narrative tale that spans time (and space) that actually comes to a meaningful conclusion in the span of a single season.
It’s also super notable for not only being one of the largest piece of media to ever talk about the Tulsa race massacre, but that its story and plot pivot around what that event represents and, in light of the rise of overt white supremacy in 2020 that culminated in an attempted insurrection on the Capitol building a few weeks ago, paint a near prophetic roadmap to what the real-life year after its release would look like. Watchmen shows an “alternate” 2019/2020 that ends up being very nearly our own. The fact it does so without seeming too cloying or preachy is a minor miracle.
I’m not really in the art world, but follow parts of it closely enough that I’ll occasionally catch wind of something that will make me say “this is my shit”.
Ours is my shit. Ours, in the words of the artist, “aims to intercept how green consumerism could be further exploited as a means for radically regressive ideology, as to not be blindsided by its arrival. Speculating a future where an Outdoor brand extends all of its nativist tendencies to complete, total malignancy has proved to be a process that at times seemed to be speculating a future so remote from reality that it seemed a pointless science fiction caricature, and other times seem to be so close that to reality that it seemed to hardly differentiate itself from it.”
It’s essentially a fake, satirical brand that repackages the notion of “the outdoors itself” as something that can be bought and resold to customers.
There’s a lot of reasons this hits, one of which is watching how a lot of the rhetoric the artist discusses in their essay on Ours finds and worms its way into my own understanding of the outdoors via the other upwardly-mobile upper-middle-class people I often find myself around. This, especially, in contract with my dad’s understanding of the outdoors that, in his own telling, was sort of “more pure” 30 years ago, when “hiking” wasn’t near the aesthetic that it is today. People who went hiking went hiking because they liked hiking, not because they wanted to take photos of themselves hiking.
I haven’t tried to verify his claims, but it’s an ambrosial tale that maps neatly onto my own disdain for the rise of the “outdoor [personal] aesthetic,” and one that is in some ways backed up by the claims of Ours. In part the idea that nature is at once “totally free to consume” but we are sold ways that we understand it must be consumed. I’m recalling here too Mark Greif’s essay “Afternoon of the Sex Children” in Against Everything, where he talks about sex as something freely given, but once “liberated” becomes the target of commercialization. Nature, Ours posits, is on the same path, if not already there. Grief:
How should a system convince people that they do not possess their sex [or nature] properly? Teach them that in their possession it is shapeless and unconditioned. Only once it has been modified, layered with experts, honeycombed with norms, overlaid with pictorial representations and sold back to them, can it fulfill itself as what its possessors “always wanted” […] How to convince them that what appears plentiful and free - even those goods that in fact are universally distributed - is scarce? Extend the reach of these new norms that cannot be met without outside intervention.
REI might have you believe that Marco Polo wore North Face. How else could he have explored? For another take I also recommend this piece in Hyperallergic.
With barely a day left in January 2021 I’ve now wrapped up my retrospective on 2020! Like I said at the top, what’s crazy is that this all already feels like ancient history. That it all happened so long ago in another time. Maybe life will re-solidify in 2021, but considering the insane January it has already been it seems like it won’t for a while, if ever.
Thanks for reading.